At the heart of the Alps, Austria covers an area of 84 000sq km/32 432.5sq mi, stretching for 580km/360.4mi from Switzerland to Hungary. For a distance of 2 600km/1 615.5mi it shares a border with Germany, the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.
The River Danube, which acts as a catchment for virtually all the rivers of Austria, flows west-east for 360km/223.7mi across the Danube plateau, a vast upland region abutting the Bohemian mountains to the north and encompassing the mountainous Wachau region. This is the historical heart of Austria. Two-thirds of the country is covered by the Alpine chain. To the east, Austria runs into the Puszta, or Hungarian plain.
The Austrian Alps are divided from north to south into three chains: The Northern Limestone Alps, the High or Central Alps, and the Southern Limestone Alps, separated from each other by the valleys of the Inn, the Salzach and the Enns in the north; and the Drava and the Mur in the south.
The Northern Limestone Alps
These overflow into Bavaria and extend—west to east—into the massifs of Rätikon, Lechtal, Karwendel, Kaisergebirge, Steinernes Meer, Tennengebirge, Dachstein, the Alps of Ennstal, Eisenerz, Hochschwab and Schneeberg. The highest point is the Parseierspitze at 3 038m/9 967ft.
The Northern Limestone Alps are divided into distinct massifs by transverse valleys, along which the Lech, Ache (the Alz in Bavaria), Saalach and Enns rivers flow toward the Danube plateau. As a result, it’s not particularly difficult for drivers to cross or go around these massifs.
East of the Ache, the Dachstein, the Hochschwab and the Raxalpe rise sharply to more than 2 000m/6 500ft. Due to the porous nature of the limestone, these mountains are like stony deserts, scored here and there with narrow furrows. Here, the flow of the water is almost entirely subterranean, which has resulted in the formation of numerous caves, including the famous ones in the Dachstein.
Long river valleys
The Northern Limestone Alps are bounded to the south by a deep cleft, separating them from the High Alps. This cleft is divided into valleys, each with its own river, the Inn, the Salzach and the Enns. This major break in the landscape makes it possible to drive along the chain for its entire length.
The High or Central Alps
The High Alps, mostly of crystalline rock, appear as a succession of ridges topped by glaciers, comprising (west to east): The Ötztal Alps, the Hohe Tauern and the Niedere Tauern. For more than 250km/155mi the crestline rarely drops below 3 000m/9 842.5ft. The Brenner pass, the medieval route to Venice, links the valleys of the Inn and the Adige. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstraße and the Felbertauern tunnel make it possible to cross the imposing massif of the Hohe Tauern. To the south of the High Alps, the furrows of the Drava, Mur and Mürz rivers form the natural link between Vienna and northern Italy.
The Southern Limestone Alps
The Carnic Alps and the Karawanken are Austrian on their northern slopes only. Under the terms of the St-Germain-en-Laye Peace Treaty in 1919, the southern part of the Tirol was ceded to Italy and the Julian Alps to then to Yugoslavia.
About 10 000 years ago, immensely thick Alpine glaciers advanced northward, extending over the Bavarian plateau almost as far as modern Munich.
The glaciers substantially remodeled the relief of the Alpine valleys. They scooped out natural amphitheaters known as cirques (like the one closing off the Brandnertal), scoured valleys into a U-shaped section (like the steep-sided Saalach Valley north of Saalfelden), and created hanging valleys (such as the one above the Achensee). These funnel-shaped basins with their steep cliffs often feature spectacular waterfalls.
Glaciers tended not to follow the existing continuous slope of a valley but to carve out a series of well-defined steps (as evident in the Karawanken), creating natural sites for modern hydroelectric plants. The reservoirs often lie amid breathtaking mountain scenery, as in the case of the impressive Glockner-Kaprun installation.
Carrying along a mass of rocky debris, which when deposited is known as a moraine, the glaciers added an extra, complex layer to the landscape of the pre-alpine plateau. The semi-circular moraines created natural dams behind which water accumulated to form the lakes of the Bavarian plateau and of the northern Salzkammergut.
In contrast to weather in the valleys, the mountain climate varies considerably according to altitude, geography, or exposure to sunshine.
In the late morning warm, expanded air creeps up from the valley and causes cloud formations around the summits. Due to this weather phenomenon, viewpoints atop the mountains are best visited early to mid-morning. Around 5pm, the cold mountain breezes sweep back down into the valley, creating a sudden plunge in temperature.
This warm fall wind is most strongly felt north of the Alps, in the Alpine valleys of the Rhine, the Inn (especially in the Ötztal) and the Salzach. It is caused by the passage of a deep depression along the north slope of the Alps. Having shed its moisture on the Italian slope of the range, where storms and rain are frequent, the air drawn in by the depression spills over the crestline. Warmed by compression as it loses altitude, it is transformed into a dry, warm wind that creates wonderfully clear skies.
In the mountains, everyone is on the alert. Torrents are in spate, avalanches rumble, and the risk of fire is great. Locals live in such a state of nervous exhaustion that, for example, examinations are sometimes suspended in Innsbruck schools. The Föhn is even said to be submitted as a mitigating circumstance in criminal trials.
In mountain areas the pattern of vegetation is not only influenced by soil type and climate, but also strongly linked to altitude and aspect. Tree species in particular tend to succeed one another in clearly defined vertical stages, though this staging is much modified by human influences as well as by the orientation of the particular slope. Northern, i.e. south-facing, sunny slopes offer the best growing conditions and have therefore been the most subject to deforestation. Southern, i.e. north-facing, slopes by contrast have tended to keep their trees, which flourish in the prevailing wetter and more shady conditions. This pattern is seen at its best in valleys running east–west.
In most parts of the Alps, farming is practiced up to about 1 500m/5 000ft. Above here is a belt of conifer forest that gives way to alpine pastures at around 2 200m/7 000ft. Above 3 000m/10 000ft bare rock prevails, only occasionally relieved by mosses and lichens.
The following conifers dominate the Alpine forests:
This is the typical tree of north-facing slopes. It has a pointed outline, drooping branches, reddish bark, and sharp needles.
The only European conifer to lose its needles in winter, the larch is prevalent on south-facing slopes. Its delicate light-green foliage casts a relatively light shade, allowing grass and herbs to grow underneath. The small cones are carried upright on the twigs.
Austrian pine (Schwarzkiefer)
The medium-high Austrian pine has a dense crown, dark green foliage and a pale and darkly fissured bark. Its needles grow in pairs. It is undemanding in terms of soil and climate and frequently used in reclamation work in difficult conditions (e.g. on thin limestone soils).
Stone pine (Zirbel)
This pine has upward-curving branches that make it look like a candelabrum. It grows right up to the tree line, often twisted into fantastic shapes by the wind. Its bluish-green needles grow in clusters of five. The dense wood of this pine is much appreciated by woodcarvers and makers of rustic furniture.
The name “Alpine” is normally used to describe plants growing above the tree line. Because of the short growing season (June to August), they tend to flower early and be resistant to drought (woolly leaf surfaces, thick leaves for water storage). Flowering plants found in the Austrian Alps include the Alpine Rose, Gentian, Primrose, Globe Flower and Cyclamen, Martagon Lily, Alpine Aster, Carline Thistle and, on the edges of the snow-fields, Soldanellae. Rocky areas are home to Edelweiss, Saxifraga, Alpine Poppy, and Glacier Crowfoot.
Austria has a rich and varied animal life. The shores of the Neusiedler See are a paradise for 250 species of waterfowl and waders, including kingfishers, river terns, spoonbills and herons. Storks are also regular visitors here. On the lakes of the Salzkammergut and Upper Austria, swans add a fairy-tale element to the scene.
The Danube is home to 60 of the 80 species of fish to be found in Austria, including eels, perch, and catfish.
Various kinds of deer, wild boar, badgers and foxes make their home in Austria’s forests, while the fields and woodlands are a playground for rabbits and hares.
Visitors never fail to succumb to the charms of Austria’s cutest Alpine resident, the grey-brown marmot. Unfortunately, being of a somewhat shy disposition, it only rarely grants lucky ramblers a public audience. The blue hare is another cautious creature.
Herds of nimble chamois are to be seen principally in the Limestone Alps. Alpine ibex, equally agile and also very strong, live above the tree line. Red deer are common throughout Austria.
Typical Alpine bird life includes the snow-partridge, the Alpine jackdaw, the griffon vulture and the capercaillie. On the whole, and especially during the mating season, these birds are more likely to be heard than seen. King of them all, however, is surely the golden eagle, a truly majestic bird with a wingspan of 2m/6.5ft, which sadly rather seldom makes an appearance.History